No offense to Sir Winston Churchill, but history isn’t just written by the victors. The fact of the matter is we all have our histories. You, me – everyone around us carries with them at all times the accumulation of their lived days. Some of those days are memorable for some reason – the excitement of undefiled joy, the depths of immense pain – but even the unremarkable days build up what we call our life.
Often, we are uncomfortable when people want to walk us back, take us through their history. My family is experiencing something of that tension right now; my wife is currently leading the research into some of her family history, and we’re finding that no person is fully good or bad. The same is true of history. There’s always something of both to be found if we’re willing to look fairly.
I read this the other day, and it gave me the courage to continue thinking about my own past and the things I often remember but don’t explore for fear of upsetting someone. These are the words of Frederick Buechner, from his book Telling Secrets:
I am inclined to believe that God’s chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn’t play those roles right the first time round, we can still have another go at it now. We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imagining our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.
The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.
I know now, as an adult, that the people who surround me are themselves highly complex and equally as possessed of memories and experiences similar to mine. I know now, as an adult, that things which happened to me as a child were also happening to the people with whom I interacted. Indeed, none of us have histories that are solo performances. The other people entwined in our memories have their own versions of the same events.
What gives me a sense of peace is Buechner’s assertion that “instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.” My past – your past – does not have to be a weight.
It can be wings, if you’re willing.
I write so much about what happens in my life – what has happened in my life – as a way of making sense, of interpreting the movements of history so I can be a better man, better husband, better father; but also so I can leave the world a better place. Even as I go back, I find the familiar villains from my childhood weren’t necessarily villains at all, at least, not in the classic sense; rarely are people wholly evil, even if that’s what I remember. In fact, I find myself more and more frequently wondering just how many people have slotted me as their villain; because there have been times in my life where that title would fit like a tailored suit.
I’m learning that with history, as with so many other things in life, there has to be a sense of grace for the people around you. All I can hope is that as I learn to extend grace, others will extend it to me.
Imagine what a difference that might make.